Be wary when recycling e-castoffs

Recycling the massive mountain of electronic has-beens diverts thousands of pounds of waste from lan

In April, I brought a bunch of old cellphones, a fax machine, some computer keyboards and a tangle of miscellaneous phone chargers to a local electronics recycling event.

The flier advertising the event assured that the recycling center hosting the collection would provide free, secure data destruction on all hard drives and storage media, so I dropped off everything without a thought to the information stored on the old devices.

The products were unloaded from my car and placed on pallets in the parking lot, which were already piled high with other people’s e-castoffs. I drove away, happy to have rid my home of the electronic clutter in an eco-friendly way.

Not long ago, I got a phone call from a stranger from Cohoes who asked me if I had lost a cellphone. The woman told me her boyfriend had been given the phone in question by his father, who had obtained it in Schenectady. She said she couldn’t bear to let him keep it once she saw the family photos stored on it. She tracked me down through the phone numbers saved on the phone. Puzzled, I arranged a meeting to pick it up and found that the phone was one I had dropped off at the April recycling event.

Electronic devices have become like extra limbs to many Americans. As they break or become obsolete, disposal becomes an issue. According to a report released in May 2011 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, an estimated 2,440,000 tons of electronic waste were disposed of in 2010. Only about 27 percent of that — 649,000 tons — was recycled.

Recycling the massive mountain of electronic has-beens diverts thousands of pounds of waste from landfills and incinerators, keeps toxins like lead, mercury and cadmium from contaminating the environment and conserves natural resources. It’s the responsible thing to do, but it’s important to manage e-waste wisely or personal information could wind up in the hands of someone more than happy to re-use it.

The New York State Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act, signed into law in May 2010, requires manufacturers to provide free and convenient recycling of electronic waste to most consumers in the state.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2015, taking the lazy way out and simply tossing electronic refuse in the trash will be against the law. Consumers will be prohibited from disposing of pretty much anything that has an electrical cord in landfills or waste-to-energy facilities.

More and more people are getting on the electronics recycling bandwagon, according to Marlon Akins, director of community outreach for All Green Electronics Recycling, a company that partners with recycling firms in the Capital Region.

“Just in the U.S. alone, we recycle an average of about a million pounds of cellphones every two days,” he said.

There’s money in it for the recyclers. In a million pounds of cellphones, there are about 50 pounds of gold, approximately 550 pounds of silver and around 20,000 pounds of copper, Akins estimated. But a phone that’s reusable is worth even more than a disassembled one. A single functioning flip phone can fetch $7 or $8, he said.

So when a phone or any piece of electronic equipment is brought to a recycling center, it shouldn’t simply be assumed that it will be recycled in a way that involves disassembly.

People don’t drop off many cellphones for recycling at T.A. Predel Co. in Schenectady, but anything that does come in with data-storage capabilities is disabled so that the data cannot be retrieved, said Manager Jody Paige.

“Anything with a hard drive, we’re supposed to literally take the hard drive and smash it,” he elaborated.

All of the electronics collected at Predel’s are then picked up and processed by Regional Computer Recycling and Recovery. The company is certified by the National Association for Information Destruction, which means it has to meet certain criteria to ensure all data is destroyed on the devices that are brought there to be recycled.

Peter Bennison, vice president of business development for the company, recommends that consumers ensure the recycling company they use holds a certification from NAID or one of the other associations that regulates industry standards, such as RIOS or R2.

The company I brought my e-waste to is R2-certified, but that didn’t stop my data from getting into someone else’s hands. Whether it’s a phone or a computer, the best thing for a wannabe recycler to do is to take on the data removal process personally before sending off any electronic device that could hold personal information, said Chris Clark, bench technician at Cheap Geek Computer Services in Burnt Hills. He recommended removing SIM cards — portable memory chips — from phones that have them, and hard drives from computers.

“The best solution would be to donate it without the hard drive in it and you could go as basic as whacking it with a hammer” to disable it, he said. Even when hard drives are erased, they still hold data, he noted.

“There’s tons of free programs out there, especially for somebody with a little bit of knowledge, and they will retrieve all kinds of data off of those hard drives, so best practice would be to actually physically damage that drive,” he said. “… If it’s intact in a donated machine, that data is definitely vulnerable.”

Peter Muscanelli, vice president of sales and marketing for Colt Refining and Recycling in Glenville, said busy collection events like the one I dropped off my e-waste at can offer opportunities for electronics to fall into the wrong hands. “You just have less control over collection events, no matter what anybody tells you. You’re going to have less control over [them] when you’re trying to remove equipment out of cars and so on. There’s no way to watch so many people do so many things. It’s just impossible,” he said.

Muscanelli recommended bringing e-waste to a recycling facility on a day when there’s no special collection event going on. Colt accepts electronic waste at its facility in the Glenville Technology Park weekdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. T.A. Predel accepts old electronics weekdays from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 201 Edison Ave., Schenectady.

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